Leave of Absence

October 18, 2020 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I want to finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis.  And I want to continue writing my weekly blog posts.  But I have discovered I cannot do both at once.

So this fall, while the Jewish cycle of Torah readings is going through the book of Genesis, I will work on my own book.  I have already rewritten my essays  and Torah monologues to date that deal with how Genesis presents moral conundrums to its characters.  Now I need to write new work to complete the jigsaw puzzle.

During the next eleven weeks, I will send you an update on my progress, and a link to one of my earlier blog posts on the Torah portion of the week–one that will not appear in the book.

Also at anytime, you can click on “Categories” in the sidebar to the right of any of my posts, scroll down, click on the name of a Torah portion, and click on any of my earlier posts that you would like to read.

I plan to be back with a new blog post in January, when we begin studying the book of Exodus again.  By then I hope my book is finished!

May the next eleven weeks be creative and fulfilling for all of us.

*

Here is a link to one of my essays on the first two Torah portions of Genesis, Bereishit and NoachNoach: Winds of Change.

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Our Father, Our King

September 22, 2020 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

A king, 15-13th cent. BCE, Hazor

Avinu malkeinu, we have missed the mark before you.

Avinu malkeinu, we have no king other than you.

avinu (אָבִינוּ) = our father.

malkeinu (מַלְכֵּנוּ) = our king.

These are the first two verses of a prayer sung from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to ask God to forgive our misdeeds of the past year.  (The new year, 5781, began on Friday evening, and Yom Kippur will end the evening of September 28, 2020 in the secular calendar.)

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be traced to the Talmud, which records a story about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer during a drought.1  Akiva’s teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, prayed for rain.

Rabbi Akiva, Mantua Haggadah, 1568

And he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered.  Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: “Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”  And rain immediately fell. The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not.  A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving.  God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”  (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 25b, The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org)

Over the centuries more verses were added to Rabbi Akiva’s original two verses, all beginning with the words Avinu malkeinu.2

The first book of Isaiah, dated to the 8th century B.C.E., warns King Ahaz of Judah about dangers from other nations and urges him not to become a vassal of Assyria.  The prophet calls God, not King Ahaz, malkeinu:

For God is our judge

          Who issues decrees;

God is malkeinu;

          [God] rescues us.  (Isaiah 33:22)

A king here is not only a judge and a legislator, but also the one who rescues his subjects from foreign threats.

Prophet Isaiah, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The second book of Isaiah, dated to 540 B.C.E. or later, predicts that God will return the exiles in Babylonia to their homeland of Judah.  The prophet reminds God that the Israelites are like children waiting for their parent to rescue them:

For you are avinu.

          Even if Abraham did not know us

          And Israel did not recognize us

You, God, are avinu.

            Our redeemer from long ago is your name.  (Isaiah 63:16)

A father knows his children, and if they become slaves he redeems them.

If God is like our father and our king, then each of us is like a child or a servant to God.  In fact, the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah includes a special three-part section with the following words after each set of shofar blasts:

Today the world is born.  [God] makes all creations of all worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants.  If as children, have compassion toward us like the compassion of a father for children!  And if as servants, our eyes hang on you until you pardon us and you release our verdict like a light, fear-inspiring Holy One!

What does it mean to be like a child to God?

Although children may be born with some instincts about fairness and kindness, they have a lot to learn.  When they miss the mark, or even commit serious violations, children should be guided to realize that what they did was wrong and taught to repent, apologize, and make amends.  A good human parent or mentor can do this with unflagging love for the child.

A child without help from an adult either misses out, or learns slowly through trial and error and close observation.  The bible offers some rules about morality and about how to right the wrongs we do, but these hints are easy to overlook in the flood of narrative and ancient case law.

And although God may continue to love us when, like children, we miss the mark out of ignorance or naivety in a new situation, God does not provide the kind of instruction and guidance that humans can.  Only after we have developed a mature sense of right and wrong, and a process for righting the wrongs we do, is it possible to hear the voice of God inside our own consciences.  We need good humans in our lives before we can grow up and become good humans ourselves.

What does it mean to be like a servant to God?

In an absolute monarchy, the ruler’s subjects are like servants.  Some are obedient minions of the monarchs themselves.  Others are public servants who help, advise, and make requests of the monarch as they work for the good of the kingdom.

Do we serve God by obeying as many of God’s original orders to the Israelites as we can, even if God issued them several millennia ago?  Do we take the biblical command to exterminate Canaanites as an order to exterminate Palestinians?  Do we stone women who are not virgins on their wedding day?  Do we obey other ancient rules that seem unethical by modern standards?

Or do we serve God by working for the good of God’s kingdom?  In the book of Genesis God creates the world and then lets human beings rule over it.3  Now human beings are becoming absolute rulers of the world, and we are doing it badly; pollution has led to global climate catastrophe, and intolerance has prevented us from working together for mutual aid.  We need to improve as human beings so we can rescue God’s world.

Rescue

Here is the final verse of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu:

Avinu malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us.

          Even if we have no [good] deeds

          Treat us with charity and kindness, and rescue us.

We pray for God, our father, our king, to forgive us for our failings the previous year and rescue us from the consequences.  But as adults, we have to rescue ourselves—by doing the appropriate good deeds.

Now that I am no longer a child, I pray to the still small voice of God within for inspiration on how to recognize my misdeeds, how to make amends graciously, and how to change my approach to life so I can gradually learn to do better.

And when I think of God as a parent or a monarch, I imagine God silently praying for us wayward servants to pull ourselves together, turn around, and collectively rescue the world by doing what only human beings can do: teaching our children, restoring our planet, and treating everyone with charity and kindness.

  1. Akiva ben Yoseif, called “Rabbi Akiva” in the Talmud, lived in Judea 30-135 C.E.
  2. The total number of verses used for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) ranges from 27 in the Yemenite tradition to 53 in the tradition of the Jews of Salonika.
  3. Genesis 1:26.

Nitzavim: From Mouth to Heart

September 9, 2020 at 10:36 am | Posted in Nitzavim | 1 Comment

For you must listen to the voice of God, your God, to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah; because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:10)

levavekha (לְבָבְךָ) = your heart; your mind, your consciousness.

nafshekha (נַפְשֶׁךָ) = your throat; your appetite, your desire; your animating soul.

What command is Moses talking about here in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“Taking a stand”)?  One possible command is “to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah”.  But the reason for observing all these rules is “because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.

So some classic commentators, including Ramban, Albo, and Sforno,1 wrote that the underlying command is to do teshuvah, i.e. repentance and turning back to God.

Moses continues:

For this command that I command you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not too far away.  It is not in the heavens, to say: “Who can go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and announce it to us, so we can do it?”  And it is not from across the sea, to say:  “Who can cross over for us to the other side of the sea today and take it for us and announce it, so we can do it?”  Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:11-14)

pikha (פִּיךָ) = your mouth; your statement.

Sforno explained: “You also have no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you in such a manner that it will be possible for you (to do it) in exile.”2

The command to turn back to God is always possible to obey, even for those who are not “wise men”, because God helps us do it.  Earlier in the Torah portion Nitzavim, Moses says:

—if: “you return to God, your God, and you listen for [God’s] voice…  you and your children, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha (Deuteronomy 30:2)

—then: “God, your God, will return to restore you and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:3)

—and furthermore: “Then God, your God, will circumcise levavekha and the levav of your descendants to love God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha, in order that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

levav (לְבַב) = heart, mind, consciousness.

In other words, if you want to return to God with all your mind and all your desire, and you listen for God, then God will meet you halfway and open your heart so that you love God.  Loving God makes completing teshuvah a lot easier.  (See my blog post Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force.)

What does the Torah portion mean by: “Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it”?

According to Albo, “The text is certainly alluding to teshuvah.  A pointer to this are the words: ‘in thy mouth and in thy heart to do it’.  Teshuvah involves confession of the lips and remorse of the heart.”3

Then why does pikha, your mouth (or the statement that issues from it) come before levavekha?  Don’t you have to feel remorse in your heart before you can confess wrongdoing?  Don’t you have to feel like turning back to God before you can do it?

No, at least not in my own experience.  In a way, making teshuvah with God is like doing the right thing with people I don’t really like.  I know I should be compassionate and fair with them, so I make an effort to acknowledge them, say something friendly, listen to them, treat them with respect.  After I have done this for a while, I usually find myself caring about them.  Good speech leads to good feelings.

On the Eve of Yom Kippur, by Jakub Weinles

Similarly, I often feel distant from God.  It is harder for me to relate to God than to human beings, especially since I only have a vague concept of what the word “God” might legitimately mean.  I used to take the easy path of atheism, ignoring my undefinable feelings of transcendence so I could deny God.

But now I take the first step of teshuvah by turning toward God and listening for God’s voice.  When I pray or ponder a piece of Torah, the words are in my mouth first.  They echo in my consciousness, and sometimes an insight arises, as if from nowhere, as if from God.  And I feel moved, as if my heart is opening.  The thing that was in my mouth enters my heart.

Teshuvah is on the minds of many Jews at this time of year, as we approach Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”).  May each of us find a way to let the spoken liturgy enter our hearts, so that as we turn toward God, God returns to us.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a 12th-century Spanish rabbi. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century Spanish rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmnaides.  Yosef Albo was the 15th-century Spanish rabbi who wrote Sefer Ha-IkkurimOvadiah ben Yaakov Sforno was a 16th-century Italian rabbi.
  2. Ovdiah Sforno, Commentary on the Torah, translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll, 1997, p. 981.
  3. From Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkurim, translated by Aryeh Newman in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 323.

Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey

September 3, 2020 at 10:24 am | Posted in Ki Tavo, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Moses describes three rituals the Israelites must perform after they have crossed the Jordan and taken the land of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”).  For all three, Moses reminds the people that they will be living in “a land flowing with milk and honey”.

Caravaggio ca. 1595, detail

First he prescribes Shavuot, the annual pilgrimage to bring the first fruits of the year to the priests at the temple.  Each farmer must bring a basket of fruits, give the basket to a priest, and recite a short history of the Israelites from the arrival in Egypt to the arrival in Canaan.  (See my post Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean.)  The recitation ends:

“And [God] brought us to this place and gave to us this land, a land zavat chalav udevash.  And now behold!  I bring the first fruits of the soil that you have given to me, God.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:9-10)

zavat (זָבַת) = flowing, oozing.

chalav (חָלָב) = milk, drinkable yogurt.

udevash (וּדְבָשׁ) = and honey, fruit syrup.

Through this formula, each donor expresses appreciation to God for the bountiful land.

Payment of the Tithes, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1617

The second ritual takes place every three years, when all farmers must set aside a tenth of their harvest and give it to the people in their towns who have no farms to feed them.  When they have done so, they must recite this declaration to God:

I have rooted out from the house what is to be consecrated, and also I have given it to the Levite and to the resident alien, to the orphan and to the widow, as in all the commands that you commanded me.  I did not transgress your commands and I did not forget.  … Look down from your holy home, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel and the soil that you have given to us as you swore to our forefathers, a land of zavat chalav udevash. (Deuteronomy 26:13-15)

The second recitation alludes to the reason why God “gave” the Israelites in a land of milk and honey: because they obeyed God’s commands.  (God’s gift consists of helping the Israelites attack the inhabitants of Canaan, win a series of battles, and kill or subjugate the people.  See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)

Altar on Mt. Eyval, photo by Raymond A. Hawkins

The third ritual that Moses prescribes takes place neither at the temple nor in the towns, but at twin hills near the town of Shekhem.  As soon as they have crossed the Jordan, the Israelites must erect large stones on Mount Eyval and coat them with limewash, which hardens into a smooth white surface.  (See my post Ki Tavo: Carved in Stone.)  Then they must build an altar, make an offering, and write on the standing stones.

And you shall write on them all the words of this teaching when you cross over in order to come into the land the God, your God, is giving you, a land zavat chalav udevash, as God, God of your forefathers, spoke to you.  (Deuteronomy 27:3)

Because God “gives” them such a bountiful land, the Israelites must record God’s teaching (torah) on the hilltop.

Next Moses describes the ritual.  Half of the tribes must stand for the blessing on nearby Mount Gezerim, and the other half must stand for the curse on Mount Eyval.  Then the Levites shout out the prescribed curses for disobeying God, and after each one all the people must say “Amen”. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

What does it mean to say that a land is flowing with milk and honey?  And why does Moses keep bringing it up?

What does it mean?

Oozing fig

The most literal explanation of zavat chalav udevash was offered in the Talmud, Ketubot 111b, where several rabbis describe seeing nanny goats dripping milk as they grazed under fig trees oozing syrup.  Later commentary explained the idiom as referring to a land that is good for both raising livestock (which produce milk) and growing fruits (which produce syrup).  An alternative explanation was that valleys are farmed everywhere, but in Canaan even the uncultivated hills provide food, because their vegetation produces herbage for wild goats (making milk) and flowers for wild bees (making honey).1

At least in years with enough rain.  Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses (speaking for God) tells the Israelites:

And observe all the commands that I command you today, so that you will be strong and enter and possess the land that you are crossing into to possess.  And so that your days will be long on the soil that God swore to your forefathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land zavat chalav udevash.  For the land that you are entering to possess is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you sowed seeds and your watered them by foot, like a vegetable garden.  But the land that you are crossing into to possess is a land of hills and valleys, [a land that] drinks water from rain of the heavens.  … And it will be, if you really listen to my commands that I command you today, to love God, your God, and to serve [God] with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give rain to your land …  (Deuteronomy 11:8-11, 11:13-14)

Canaan will be a land “flowing with milk and honey” as long as its new occupants, the Israelites, love and serve God, so that God provides rain to make the vegetation grow and bloom.

It occurred to me that milk also indicates fertility, and honey or syrup is a luxury, one of the choice products of Canaan that Jacob sends as a gift to Egypt.2  The basket of first fruits that a person bring to the priests may also contain the delicacy of fruit syrups.

Why does Moses keep bringing it up?

The phrase zavat chalav udevash, “flowing with milk and honey”, appears fifteen times in Exodus through Deuteronomy.  The first occurrence is when Moses stands at the burning bush on Mount Sinai.  God tells him:

“And I have come down to rescue [my people] from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land zavat chalav udevash, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Chivites and the Jebusites.”  (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)

The good news is that the land flows with good things to eat.  The bad news is that the land is already inhabited by six other peoples.  The next two references in Exodus mention the current inhabitants first, then sweeten the picture by calling the land “zavat chalav udevash”.3

This promise does not keep the Israelites from complaining about the uncertain food and water supply on the journey from Egypt to the border of Canaan, and suggesting that they give up and return to Egypt.4  Since the carrot is not enough, Moses adds a stick, handing down warnings that the Israelites must obey God if they want God to help them move into the land zavat chalav udevash.5

Eventually the next generation of Israelites does cross the Jordan, and conquers much of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and, presumably, with the help of God.  Thus the rituals Moses lays out in this week’s Torah portion include gratitude for possession of a land zavat chalav udevash.

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Today we, too, must obey the rules in order to have land that is “flowing with milk and honey”.  We have imperiled our whole planet through air pollution, and the global climate change that has already begun threatens to scorch areas that we used until now to produce food for our immense world population.  We must obey the rules inherent in nature, starting now.

Already in our lifetimes the flow of milk and honey will diminish.  The milk of fertility will dry up, and the honey of luxury will become scarce.  We will have to develop new lands to recover at least part of the abundance that came to us as a gift—for we have not loved nor served our earth.

  1. Nogah Hareuveni, Ecology in the Bible, Neot Kedumim, 1974, p. 11, cited in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981.
  2. Genesis 43:11.
  3. Exodus 3:17, 13:5.
  4. The Israelites complain about the journey at least five times in Exodus 14:11-12, 15:22-24, 16:2-3, 17:1-4, and 32:1. Each time they are afraid they will die without reaching the land God promised, so they would have been better off staying in Egypt. They complain about the food and water on journey to Canaan at least six times in Numbers 11:1, 11:4-6, 13:31-14:4, 16:12-14, 20:1-5, and 21:4-5.
  5. Numbers 13:27-14:10 and 14:22-35; Deuteronomy 6:3 and 11:8-9.

Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2

August 26, 2020 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Shoftim | 1 Comment

Israelite Soldier (artist unknown)

Once the Israelites have taken over most of Canaan and established their own country, Moses says in last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest, and some men will have more important duties than being soldiers.  Battles are inevitable in the Torah, and advantageous to the winners; winning king expands his kingdom, and his soldiers get shares of the booty.  But the portion Shoftim opens a door to an attitude that values peace.

In last week’s post, Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1, I covered the four rules a good king must follow, all of which would make a war of conquest more difficult—unless God intervened.   Later the portion Shoftim says:

If you go out to battle against your enemies and you see horse and chariot, more troops than you have, you must not be afraid of them, because God, your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:1)

Individual men must still be prepared to die, but they should know that God is on the side of their country and their comrades.

If the war is defensive, protecting the kingdom from attack, then all able-bodied men who are age 20 and older must serve in the military.1  But if the war is offensive, designed to expand Israel’s border or its prestige, then four kinds of circumstances excuse men altogether from going to battle.2

Israelite house, artist unknown

1) Then the officials will speak to the troops, saying: “Who is the man that has built a new house and not chanako?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man yachnekhenu.”  (Deuteronomy 20:5)

chanakho (חֲנָכוֹ) = dedicated it, inaugurated it.  yachnekhenu (יַחְנְכֶנּוּ) = he will dedicate it, inaugurate it.  (From the same root as chanukah, חֲנֻכָּה = dedication; the name of the winter solstice holiday.)

According to Talmud Bavli (Sotah 43b) this exemption applies to any man who has not dedicated a new house, whether he built it, bought it, inherited it, or received it as a gift.  What does it mean to dedicate a new house?  According to Targum Yonatan, it means putting a mezuzah on the doorpost.3  But this takes only a few minutes, not long enough to stop a man from going to battle.  Rashi wrote that dedicating a house means living in it.4

If the new owner died in battle, he would never know that another man was living there.  But the Torah does not want to deprive the owner of the satisfaction of moving into the new house.  In the Torah, a man who lives in his own house is the head of a household, no longer a dependent on an older family member.  He should not be denied the joy of his new status.

Grape vine, artist unknown

2) “And who is the man that has planted a vineyard and not chilelo?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yechalilenu.” (Deuteronomy 20:6)

chilelo (חִלְּלוֹ) = made profane use of it; made personal use of it.  yechalilenu (יְחַלְּלֶנּוּ) = he will make profane/personal use of it.

The Talmud defines a vineyard as at least five grape vines, and extends the exemption to include those who had planted at least five fruit trees.5  No fruit may be harvested from a grape vine or a fruit tree for the first three years after it is planted.  In the fourth year, all of its fruit must be donated to God—either brought to the priests at the temple, or exchanged for silver which is brought to the temple.  Only in the fifth year can the owner eat the fruit himself, or sell it for profit.6

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in which these rules are laid out, is primarily concerned with the holy rather than the profane.  But here in Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the importance of feeding yourself and your own household.  After waiting four years for his vines or trees to mature, farmer should not be denied the joy of making a living from them.

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

3) “And who is the man that has paid the bride-price for a wife and not lekachah?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yikachenah.” (Deuteronomy 20:7)

lekachah (לְקָחָהּ) = taken her, had sexual intercourse with her, married her.  yikachenah (יִקָּחֶנָּה) = he will take her, have sex with her, marry her.

Is the fiancé exempt from battle so that he is not deprived of intercourse with his bride, or so that he can beget children with her?  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, says:

When a man takes a new wife, he must not go out with the army for any purpose; he shall be exempt for his household for one year, and make his wife glad.  (Deuteronomy 24:5)

This implies that a new wife must not be deprived of the joy of intercourse with her husband.

The Talmud, Sotah 43b, says that the bridegroom is sent home whether he paid the bride-price for a virgin or a widow, or he is doing his duty for his deceased brother’s widow.  Under Israelite and Canaanite law, a childless woman whose husband died was is entitled to get a son through her husband’s brother.  “And even if there are five brothers, and one of them dies in the war, they all return for the widow.”7  Perhaps giving the widow a son is so important that if one brother fails, another must be available.  This Talmud passage implies that the purpose of the exemption is to get a new wife pregnant.

Whether the goal is to make the wife glad, or to have a child, a husband should not be denied the joy of living with his new wife.

Rembrandt history painting detail, 1626

4) “And the officials will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: “Who is the man who is yarei and rakh of heart?  He must leave and return to his house, and not melt the heart of his brother [soldier] like his heart.”  (Deuteronomy 20:8)

yarei (יָרֵא) = afraid, fearful.

verakh (רַךְ) = sensitive, tender, weak, delicate.

The Talmud (Sotah 44a) offers two reasons why a man might be fearful: Rabbi Akiva said the man would be terrified by the sight of a drawn sword; Rabbi Yosei HaGelili said the man would be afraid because of his sins (implying a view of the afterlife that was invented after the Hebrew Bible was written).8  Both of these reasons address fear, but not sensitivity.  Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted the sentence as describing the man as “fearful and weak-hearted”, making weak-hearted a synonym for fearful.

Talmud tractate Sotah 44b says the reason for this fourth exemption is that fear spreads, making formerly brave and hard-hearted soldiers feel qualms about going to battle.

But the officials could also be asking “Who is the man who is afraid and tender-hearted?”  Since the adjective rakh applies to a mental attitude as well as physical condition, this man would feel tenderness toward all human beings, and be afraid of killing them rather than of being killed.

A tender-hearted man’s reluctance to kill could also spread to other soldiers if he were allowed to march with the troops.

According to the Talmud (Sotah 44a), all four exemptions are announced at once to spare a fearful man from embarrassment; for all the other men know, he is leaving the ranks and going home because of a house or vineyard or wife.

But what if the exemption for a fearful or tender-hearted man is parallel to the other three exemptions?  Then perhaps he must also leave and return home for his own good.  Maybe a peaceful, gentle man must not be denied the joy of living in peace.

*

What is more important than going to war?

Home.

Livelihood.

Family, whatever form it may take.

Peace.

  1. Numbers 1:2-3.
  2. The Talmud distinguishes between optional wars of conquest, and obligatory wars to defend the kingdom of Israel or Judah from invasion. (Sotah 43b-44b)
  3. Targum Yonasan (a.k.a.Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, between 4th and 13th centuries C.E.) as cited by Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Devarim, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY, 1995, p. 205.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 43b.
  6. Leviticus 19:23-25.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 44a, William Davidson translation, www.sefaria.com.
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a.  Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E.  The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory.  The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.

 

Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1

August 19, 2020 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Kings 2, Shoftim | 1 Comment

Israelite soldier (artist unknown)

Wars of conquest and even genocide are glorified in the books of Numbers and Joshua.  (For a blatant biblical example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)

Yet sometimes in Deuteronomy a kinder voice comes through.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses looks ahead to when the Israelites have already taken over most of Canaan and established their own country.  Then a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest; Moses lists four.  Then a man will sometimes have more important duties than serving as a soldier in battle; Moses lists four of these, also.1

King, Hazor, 15-13th cent. BCE, Israel Museum

This week’s post will cover the four things a good king must do.  Next week’s post will cover the four things that are more important than serving as a soldier.

A good king

When you have entered the land that God, your God, is giving to you, and you have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say: “I will put a king over myself, like all the nations around me,” you may certainly put a king over yourself—one that God, your God, will choose.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:14-15)

Once on his throne (all the kings of the Israelites were male), the king would have to obey four rules, all of which would make the conquest of foreign countries more difficult:

  • He must not accumulate horses.
  • He must not accumulate wives, especially foreign women who worship other gods.
  • He must not accumulate too much silver and gold.
  • He must read the Torah every day.

This description applies to Josiah/Yoshiyahu, a young king of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  At age sixteen, “he began to seek out the God of David, his forefather …” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  At 26, he orders repairs for the temple in Jerusalem, and the high priest Hilkiah/Chilkiyahu reports:

“I have found a book of the torah in the house of God.”  (2 Kings 22:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  (From the root verb yorah, יֺרָה = teach, instruct.)

Josiah hearing the book of the law, 1873

Galvanized by this scroll, King Josiah demands exclusive worship of the God of Israel throughout the Kingdom of Judah and parts of the former Kingdom of Israel to the north.  He demands that his people worship only at the temple in Jerusalem, he reinstitutes Passover, and he destroys the shrines, priests, and idols of other gods.2

Modern scholars propose that Hilkiah’s scroll was a substantial part of the book of Deuteronomy, either the early core (chapters 5-26) or the code of laws in chapters 12-20.  They point to various items in the story of Josiah’s reign that appear as laws in Deuteronomy, but are not mentioned in the first four books of the bible.3

Some passages in Deuteronomy imply praise of King Josiah and criticism of earlier kings.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ four rules for kings seem to be veiled criticism of King Solomon/Shlomoh, whose reign over a united Israel would have taken place during the 10th century B.C.E.

1) He must not accumulate horses for himself, and he must not send people back to Egypt in order to accumulate horses, for God said to you: “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again.”  (Deuteronomy 17:16)

Israelites used donkeys for riding, not horses.  Throughout the Ancient Near East horses were used to pull war chariots.  Charioteers usually defeated foot soldiers—unless God intervened, as when 600 Egyptian chariots tried to cross the Reed Sea.4  God does not say “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again” until this week’s Torah portion, but several times in the books of Exodus and Numbers the Israelites in the wilderness come up with an excuse to head back to Egypt, and God acts to prevent them.5

By the time of Josiah, the kings of Judah were not only keeping horses and chariots, but dedicating them to the sun god Shemesh.

And he [Josiah] abolished the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the Shemesh, from the entrance of the house of God to … the outskirts, and he burned the chariots of the Shemesh in a fire.  (2 Kings 23:11)

Chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

Despite this loyal action, God does not intervene when the army of Egypt under Pharaoh Nekho fights the army of Judah under King Josiah.  The second book of Chronicles explains that the pharaoh sends messengers to Josiah asking for safe passage through Judah on his way to fight the Assyrians to the north.  But Josiah “did not listen to the words of Nekho from the mouth of God, and he came out to fight on the plains of Megiddo.” (2 Chronicles 35:22).  The Egyptians win, and an arrow kills King Josiah, who is riding in a horse-drawn chariot.

Three centuries earlier, King Solomon buys horses from Egypt.6  He keeps 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots—a substantial military force.7  Although the bible does not describe his battles, it does say that Solomon exacts tribute from countries on Israel’s borders, and enforces punishing corvée labor on the Israelites in the north (as the pharaoh did to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt).8

2) And he must not accumulate wives for himself, so that his leivav will not veer away.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

leivav = heart (literally), mind, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts.

Only two of King Josiah’s wives are mentioned in the bible: Chamutal of Livnah (a town in western Judah) and Zevudah of Rumah (a village west of the Sea of Galilee in what was the Kingdom of Israel until the Assyrian conquest of 701 B.C.E.).9  Both of these women are of Israelite descent, not foreigners.

Israel and its neighbors in Solomon’s time

King Solomon, however, has 700 royal wives and 300 concubines.  His first wife is the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.10  He loves and becomes attached to Pharaoh’s daughter and to women from the royal families of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, and Hatti.11  Although at the beginning of his kingship he builds the first temple to the God of Israel in Jerusalem, in his old age he becomes more devoted to his foreign wives than to God.

And it happened in his old age, Solomon’s wives turned his leivav away after other gods, and the leivav of Solomon was not with God, his God, like the leivav of his father, David, had been.  (1 Kings 11:4)

King Solomon even builds shrines for the foreign gods Khemosh and Molekh.12  Thus the second rule for a king in this week’s Torah portion can be read as another veiled criticism of Solomon.

3) And he must not accumulate too much silver and gold for himself.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

If an Israelite king kept more money than he needed to pay for the basic functions of kingship, he was disobeying the biblical injunctions to support the poor, widows and orphans, resident aliens, and Levites (religious functionaries who lived on donations).13

King Josiah takes this responsibility seriously.  When he reinstitutes the observance of Passover,

Josiah contributed lambs and goat kids for the people numbering 30,000, and 3,000 cattle, everything for the Passover sacrifices for everyone who was present.  These were from the property of the king.  (2 Chronicles 35:7)

But the description of King Solomon’s palace indicates that he uses excess gold for his own luxury.  He decorates the palace with 200 shields and 300 bucklers of hammered gold.  All his drinking cups and other utensils are also gold.14

4) And it shall be when he sits upon his throne of kingship, then he must write for himself a copy of this torah on a scroll, from [the scroll] in front of the priests of the Levites.  And it must be with him, and he must read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to be in awe of God, his God, to observe all the words of this torah and these decrees, to do them.   (Deuteronomy 17:18)

The fourth rule establishes that Israelite kings are not above the law.  The king’s most important job is to follow God’s rules.  To do this, he must keep on rereading them so he does not forget any, and so they immediately come into his mind when he faces a relevant situation.

Once again, King Josiah serves as an example of a good king.

Solomon Reading from the Torah of Moses, French manuscript, 13th cent. CE  (In the bible that king is Josiah, not Solomon!)

The king went up to the house of God, along with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets and all the people from small to big.  And he read out loud all the words of the scroll of the covenant that had been found in the house of God.  And the king stood on a platform and he cut the covenant in front of God: to follow God and to observe [God’s] commandments and testimonies and decrees with all [their] leiv and with all [their] soul, to carry out the words of this covenant, the one written on this scroll.  And all the people stood with the covenant.  (2 Kings 23:2-3)

leiv (לֵב) = a short version of the word leivav = heart, mind, inner emotions and thought.

Not so King Solomon.

And God felt angry with Solomon because he had turned away his leivav from being with God, the God of Israel …  And God said to Solomon: ‘… You have not observed my covenant and my decrees that I commanded.’  (1 Kings 11:9, 11:11)

*

These four rules for kings can still show us how to do good instead of make war.  If a king must not accumulate war horses, then today every head of state should make treaties rather than weapons, and every individual should learn how to give up violence.

If a king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from God, then today every head of state should avoid listening to those who advise taking office for the sake of power rather than service, and every individual should avoid listening to people who tempt them away from their own standards.

If a king must not accumulate too much silver and gold, then today every head of state should avoid using their position for personal gain, and every individual should learn to care more about people and actions than about wealth.

Finally, if a king must copy, read, and reread the Torah, then today every head of state should read their country’s constitution and key laws, consult with experts in every field requiring action, and question the morality of each option before acting.  And every individual should engage in study before speaking out or voting.

Then we would have more than a good king; we would have a good world.

Next week: four more startling rules in the portion Shoftim, this time about who must be excused from military service, in Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2.

  1. Unlike today’s nation of Israel, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah did not use women as soldiers in battle. (However, in Judges 4:1-22 the prophetess Devorah acts as the general of the Israelite tribes behind the scenes, and Jael kills the enemy general when he is in her tent.)
  2. 2 Kings 22-11 through 23:25.
  3. Including the temple (a.k.a. the house of God) in Jerusalem as the only legitimate place for offerings to God, the celebration of Passover at the temple rather than at home, and the language of passages in which the people pledge themselves to a covenant with God. (W. Gunther Plaut, “Introducing Deuteronomy”, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, pp. 1290-1294.)
  4. Exodus 14:1-30.
  5. Exodus 14:10-14, 15:26, 16:2-4, 17:3-6; Numbers 11:4-6, 14:2-4.
  6. 2 Kings 23:28-30.
  7. Solomon’s father, King David, hamstrings 1,600 of the horses he captures in a battle with the king of Tzovah, keeping only 100 for his own use (2 Samuel 8:4). King Solomon buys horses in 1 Kings 10:28.
  8. 1 Kings 10:26.
  9. 1 Kings 10:25 and 11:28.
  10. 2 Kings 23:30-36.
  11. 1 Kings 3:1.
  12. 1 Kings 11:1-3.
  13. 1 Kings 11:7-8.
  14. The book of Deuteronomy requires all landowners to support these groups in 14:27-29, 15:4-11, 24:19-21, and 26:12.
  15. 1 Kings 10:16 and 0:21.

Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

August 14, 2020 at 9:45 am | Posted in Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah, Re-eih, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God, and God chose you for [God’s] personal property out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

karchah (קָרְחָה) = baldness; a patch of skin shaved bald.

Moses forbids two mourning practices in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”): gashing your skin, and shaving “between your eyes”.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Other mourning practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include wailing, tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth around your hips, and sitting in ashes.  These are never forbidden (though priests are only allowed to do mourning rituals for their immediate family members)1.

But in the bible people also mourn by gashing, scarring, or tattooing their skin and by shaving the side of the head or beard, all prohibited in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28.

Unholy shaving

Shaving the hair off some part of the head seems to have been a common way to express grief in the Ancient Near East, at least for men and possibly also for women.2  The grief might be for the death of a family member, or for the death of a whole city.  Isaiah’s prophecy about the downfall of Moab includes these lines:

          Moab wails;

               On every head is karchah,

               Every beard is shaven.  (Isaiah 15:2)

Ezekiel prophesies the doom of Tyre to the north and predicts:

          Vehikriychu for you a karchah

               And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.

          And they will weep to you with a bitter soul

               Bitter rites of mourning.  (Ezekiel 27:31)

vehikriychu (וְהִקְרִיחוּ) = and they will shave or pluck bald.

When Jeremiah prophesies that God will send the Egyptian army to destroy the Philistine city of Gaza, he declares:

Karchah will come to Gaza.”  (Jeremiah 47:5)

That says it all; so many people in Gaza will be killed that everyone left will be in mourning, shaven partly bald.

Even in the Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, when God is about to destroy the capital city, God wants people to make bald patches on their heads.  Perhaps the God-character makes an exception to the commandments against shaving as mourning because God wants to see a dramatic reaction when “he” destroys a whole nation of Israelites.

Amos predicts God will bring down Samaria and reports that God said:

          I will change your festivals into rites of mourning

               And all your songs into dirges.

          And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips

              And on every head karchah.  (Amos 8:10)

Isaiah complains that the Israelites of Judah forgot God during their preparation for the siege of Jerusalem.  He says:

          My lord the God of Hosts called, on that day,

               For weeping and for rites of mourning,

               And for karchah and for tying on sackcloth.  (Isaiah 22:12)

Holy shaving

Any mourning observance, including shaving your beard, the side of your face, or “between your eyes”, makes a person ritually impure and therefore unable to approach God in the sanctuary.  Mourners and anyone else exposed to death must be purified again before they can enter the courtyard of the temple or Tent of Meeting.

Leviticus explains that priests must avoid mourning rituals because their job requires being holy, and therefore ritually pure, at all times:

Yikrechu not karchah on their head, and the side of their beard they must not shave, and their flesh they must not tattoo with tattoos.  Holy they must be to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God …  (Leviticus 21:5-6)

yikrechu (יִקְרְחוּ) = they shall not make bald, they must not shave bald.  (From the same root as karchah.)

Yet other kinds of shaving are explicitly holy.  The Torah calls for Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated,3 for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from wine and hair care is  completed,4 and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community5.

In these three examples the shaven person is ritually pure and makes an offering at the altar.

Right between the eyes

This week’s Torah portion prohibits shaving a bald spot “between your eyes”.  Where is that?

When I wrote an earlier version of this post in August 2011, I searched for other biblical references to anything between a person’s eyes.  I found only four, all referring to the placement of reminders of God’s teaching on your hand and “between your eyes”.  (Exodus 13:9 calls for a zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן), a memorial or reminder, between your eyes.  The other three references, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and Deuteronomy 11:18, call for a totafot, a word which appears only in these three sentences.)

The most well-known reference, in the Torah portion Va-etchannan, became the first paragraph of the Shema section6 of evening and morning prayers.

And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.  And you shall repeat them to your children, and you shall speak them when you stay in your house and when you go out on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be totafot between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

totafot (טוֹטָפוֹת) = ornaments worn low on the forehead.

One possibility for totafot

This definition is speculative; scholars have not yet determined what totafot were.  According to the Talmud a totefet (possibly a singular form of totafot) was an ornament or sachet attached to the front edge of a woman’s hairnet, at the center of a band that went from ear to ear7—at the point where other Asian cultures imagine the third eye,

Some translators replace the word totafot with tefillin.  But a head tefillin is tied onto the top of the head, above the forehead, rather than between and just above the eyebrows.  Although totafot are located in a different place, they are supposed to be reminders of what God did or commanded, so they may have contained tiny scrolls like tefillin.

If so, the text for the totafot in Exodus would be: “With a strong hand God brought you out from Egypt”.  The two passages in Deuteronomy indicate a different text, since both are lists of reminders for obeying “these words that I command you today”.  The closest thing to a commandment preceding both lists of reminders is: “And you shall love God, your God, with all your heart and all with your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13)—i.e. you shall love God with your whole mind and body.

With or without a text, the purpose of wearing totafot in Exodus is to be grateful that God rescued your people from slavery in Egypt, and the purpose in Deuteronomy is to remember to love God completely.  The placement of totafot approximately between one’s eyes makes them reminders that everything one sees should be experienced from the viewpoint of appreciating and loving God.

If you shaved off part of each eyebrow, the part near the nose, your face would have a bald spot, a blank patch, right where you were supposed to place the totafot.

In this week’s Torah portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “You are children to God” and “You are a holy people”.  God comes first.  Remembering to love God is more important than remembering a dead human being, however beloved.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.8  Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not supposed to give up on our own lives.  So just as we must not gash our skin in mourning, we must not disfigure the spot between the eyes where the totafot would go.

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God …    (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

May we all embrace life, even in the face of suffering and death.

  1. Leviticus 21:5.
  2. Most of the Hebrew Bible is about the world of men, and many of God’s rules are written from a male viewpoint. The closest the bible comes to describing mourning practices for women is in the rules for when a man brings home a female war captive. She must be given a month to weep for her father and mother before her owner can take her to bed.  At the beginning of the month she shall “shave her head”.  This is either a mourning ritual for women, or way to reduce the man’s lust so he can stay away for the required month.  (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
  3. Levites shave their whole bodies in Numbers 8:11 just before they come to the sanctuary to be offered to God.
  4. Nazirites shave their heads at the end of their period of abstention in Numbers 5:18. The hair that remained uncut and untended during the period of their vow is holy, and is put on the fire of the altar along with the usual grain and animal offerings for God. The shaving is also holy, since it takes place in the sanctuary at the altar.
  5. People with the skin disease tzara-at shave all their hair, including their eyebrows, seven days after they are pronounced cured in Leviticus 14:8-9.
  6. The “Shema” is the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. There are several possible translations (see my post Va-etchannan: All in One) but I usually prefer “Listen, Israel: God is our god; God is one”. The “Shema section” in Jewish prayerbook begins with the Shema and continues with three paragraphs of instructions about ways to remember God’s rules (Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41).  The first two include  totafot.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 57b.
  8. Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Eikev: Rewriting Justice

August 5, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Posted in Eikev, Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

Over and over in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses promises the Israelites prosperous lives and their own nation if they obey God’s laws, death if they do not obey.  He drives home his point with reminders of what happened to them during the 40 years since they left Egypt.

Golden calf from temple of Baalat, Byblos

Some of these recollections in Moses’ farewell speech match the stories in the books of Exodus/Shemot and Numbers/Bemidbar.  Some do not.1

Moses retells the story of the golden calf worship in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”).  In this version he claims that he prayed twice to change God’s mind about a death penalty: once for all the Israelites and once for Aaron, who made the calf.

Va-etpaleil to God, and I said: “My lord God, do not wipe out your people and your heritage that you ransomed by your greatness, that you rescued from Egypt by a strong hand!”  (Deuteronomy 9:26)

va-etpaleil (וָאֶתְפַּלֵּל) = And I prayed, and I interceded.  (This is the hitpael form of the verb palal, פָּלַל = sat in judgment; arbitrated.  The hitpael form is used only when a human begs God to change a divine judgement.)

Earlier in his rambling narrative Moses says:

For I was terrified in the face of the fury and the venom with which God became angry at you, [enough] to exterminate you.  And God listened to me that time, too.  And God felt angry enough at Aaron to exterminate him.  Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:19-20)

An obvious reason why God might be angry at Aaron appears in the book of Exodus.  When the Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, they tell Aaron:

“Get up, make us a god who will go before us!”  (Exodus 32:1)

Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin,1634

Aaron obliges by collecting the people’s gold earrings, melting them down, and making a golden calf.  He even builds an altar in front of it and declares that the next day will be a festival for God—as if the God of Israel would manifest inside or above the golden calf.

Yet he, of all people, should remember God’s second commandment, which bans the manufacture or worship of images.

After Moses returns and halts the celebration by smashing the stone tablets inscribed with God’s commandments, he asks Aaron:

“What did this people do to you that you brought upon them a great sin?”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:21)

Even as he criticizes his brother for fulfilling the people’s desire for an idol, Moses gives Aaron an excuse: he must have done wrong because the people forced him to.  What did they do to him?

Aaron waffles.  He starts by saying the people are evil, then reports that all he did was ask them to remove any gold they were wearing.

“And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!”  (Exodus 32:24)

Moses ignores Aaron’s disingenuous answer.  He orders the other Levites to kill the calf-worshippers by the sword, not sparing “… his brother or his neighbor or his close kin.”  (Exodus 32:27)  They kill 3,000 men, but they do not kill their brother Levite Aaron.  Moses does nothing to punish Aaron.  Neither does God.  Both Moses and God continue with God’s plan to elevate Aaron to the position of high priest in their new religion.

Yet Aaron violated the second commandment just as much as the calf-worshipers.

          You shall not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth.  (Exodus 20:4)

Aaron molded an idol in the shape of a calf, an animal on the earth below.  (Exodus 32:4)

          You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them.  (Exodus 20:5)

Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and told the people to bring offerings.  (Exodus 32:5-6)

His guilt is clear.  Yet at the time, God ignores Aaron, while Moses asks one question and then lets the subject drop.

Ignoring Aaron’s violation is a disservice to the Israelites, to God, to Aaron, and to Moses.

The Israelites would conclude that Aaron escaped punishment only because of nepotism.  Now that they know God and Moses play favorites, they have an extra reason to conclude that conquering Canaan for them is not worthwhile.

God wants the Israelites to become his “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but now the Israelites would view God as unjust, to be followed only out of fear rather than love.

Aaron would feel guilty the rest of his life.  He wears the high priest’s vestments, but he would know that inside he is unworthy.

Moses would be nagged by the memory of his own failure to bring his brother to justice, or even acknowledge that Aaron was guilty.

So 39 years later, Moses rewrites the conclusion of the golden calf fiasco.  Nobody else knows whether God was angry with Aaron, or whether Moses spoke to God about it.  So Moses tells the Israelites how it should have been instead of how it was.

In his speech on the bank of the Jordan, Moses declares:

And God felt anger against Aaron, enough to exterminate him.  Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time.  (Deuteronomy 9:20)

Moses’ prayer must have changed God’s mind, since Aaron survived and became the high priest.  And for Moses’ audience, this new story confirms that God is just, and also that God listens to prayer.

*

Rewriting history is rarely a virtue.  But neither is ignoring a person’s misdeeds.  As I reflect on Moses’ story in Deuteronomy, I pray that when I notice someone doing wrong, I find a safe and private way to communicate it to them.  And if I was one of the victims, and the wrongdoer apologizes and tries to remedy the situation, I pray that I will forgive them.

  1. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust?

 

Va-etchannan: Living

July 30, 2020 at 11:02 am | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A living god

Revelation at Mt. Sinai, artist unknown

The first time the God of Israel is called “a living god” is in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”).  Moses reminds the new generation of Israelites that when their parents were at Mount Sinai the revelation of God terrified them.  They begged Moses to be their intermediary because they were afraid that if they listened any longer to the voice of God they would die.  They justified their fear by adding:

“Because who, of all flesh, has heard the voice of a god chayyim speaking from the middle of the fire, as we have, vayechi?”  (Deuteronomy 5:23)

chayyim (חַיִּים) = plural of the adjective chai (חַי) = alive, living.  (As nouns, both chai and chayyim = life.  Derived from the root verb chayah, חָיָה = lived.)

vayechi (וַיֶּחִי) = and survived.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

The Israelites were not monotheists at that point; they assumed that there were other living gods who may well have spoken from the middle of a fire.  The Hebrew Bible refers to “a living god” eleven more times,1 always in reference to the God of Israel.

What is a “living god”?

When Joshua orders the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, he tells the Israelites that God will make the river part.

“By this you will know that a god chayyim is close to you and will definitely drive out from before you the Canaanites …”  (Joshua 3:10)

The implication is that a living god can take action in the world, like a living person.  A dead god is at best an inanimate and powerless idol.

Jeremiah draws this contrast in one of many biblical passages railing against statues of gods:

          And as one they are stupid and foolish,

               [Their] foundation emptiness, a piece of wood,

         Silver hammered flat from Tarshish …

               The work of a craftsman and the hand of a smith …

          But God is truly a god;

               [God] is a god chayyim,

               And king forever.

          From his fury the earth quakes,

               And nations are not able to contain [God’s] wrath.

          Thus you shall say to them: “Gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish …”  (Jeremiah 10:8-11)

Staying alive

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, life is a characteristic not only of humans but also of all other animals (but not plants); one word for “animal” is chayyah (חַיָּה) = living creature.  God gives all of us both life and death.2

Moses warns the Israelites three times in this week’s Torah portion that they must follow God’s rules in order to keep on living.

“And now, Israel, pay attention to the decrees and to the laws that I am teaching you to do, so that ticheyu and you will enter and occupy the land that God, the God of your fathers, is giving to you.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:1)

ticheyu (תִּחְיוּ) = you will live, you will stay alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

Here Moses means that if the Israelites obey all the rules, then God will let them live and ensure that they occupy the land of Canaan; but if they do not obey the rules, God will kill them.  He gives an example of when people disobeyed one of God’s fundamental rules: exclusive worship.

Bronze Baal

“Your eyes saw … what God did in Baal Peor, that God, your God, wiped out everyone who followed [the god of] Baal Peor from your midst.  But you who stuck to God, your God, all of you are chayyim today.”  (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Later, Moses says the people must:

“… observe all [God’s] decrees and commandments that I order you [to follow], you and your child and the child of your child, all the days of chayyekha, so that your days will be long.”  (Deuteronomy 6:2)

chayyekha (חַיֶּיךָ) = your life, your lifespan.  (A form of the noun chayyim.)

In this context, the reward for obeying all God’s rules is not just survival, but a long life.  Still later in the portion Va-etchnnan, Moses says:

“Then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, lechayyoteinu as today.  And we will be righteous when we observe and do all these commands before God, our God, as [God] commanded us.”  (Deuteronomy 6:24-25)

lechayyoteinu (לְחַיֺּתֵנוּ) = to keep us alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

This time either following the rules or being in awe of God, or both, seem to result directly in both staying alive and being righteous.  God tells the Israelites what the rules are in order to help them live longer and better lives.

In Moses’ three statements connecting God’s rules with life, the words for living mean 1) not being killed, 2) having a long life, and 3) being sustained by doing the right things.

What good is life?

The Hebrew Bible assumes, realistically, that most people want to keep on living; only a few characters question whether living on is worthwhile.  Life is also desirable in the bible because it lets humans, like God, take action in the world, in “the land of the living (chayyim)”.3  There is no life after death; the animating souls of everyone who dies go down to the land of the dead, Sheol, where they lie inert, unable to do anything.

Two of the actions in the land of the living that God wants from the Israelites are to have children and to occupy Canaan.  In next week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says:

All the commands that I command you today you shall observe and do, so that ticheyun and you will increase and you will enter and possess the land that God promised to your fathers.  (Deuteronomy 8:1)

ticheyun (תִּחְיוּן) = you will live.  (Another form of the verb chayah.)

Today we might value life because only the living can create things that delight us, and only the living can work on restoring this planet that we have occupied and degraded.

The Torah also assumes that God wants the praise and thanks of humans, which only the living can do.4  In the book of Isaiah, King Hezekiah writes a poem thanking God for his recovery from a grave illness.

          For Sheol does not thank you

               [nor] death praise You;

          Those who go down to the pit cannot hope

               For your faithfulness.

          Chai, chai,

               only he can thank you

               as I do today… (Isaiah 38:18-19)

Today we can still praise and thank God, though we might use different words, or stop to meditate with silent awe and joy.  We can appreciate everything in the world that humans did not make, from the sun to the ocean to life itself.

Here’s to life!  Lechayyim!

  1. References to “a living God” take the form elohim chayyim (Deuteronomy 5:23, 1 Samuel 17:26 and 17:36, Jeremiah 10:10 and 23:36) or elohim chai (2 Kings 19:4 and 16, Isaiah 37:4 and 17, Hosea 2:1) or eil chayyim (Joshua 3:10, Psalm 84:3). I am not including the name of the spring in the wilderness where an angel of God speaks to Hagar: Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (בְּאֵר לַחַי רֺאִי) = Spring of the Living One [who] Sees Me (Genesis 16:14).
  2. Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7.
  3. The phrase “land of the living”/eretz chayyim occurs in Isaiah 38:11 and 53:8; Jeremiah 11:19; Ezekiel 26:20; Psalms 27:13, 52:7, 116:9,and 142:6; and Job 28:13.
  4. Also see Psalms 6:6, 42:9, 85:7, 88:11-14, 115:17.

 

Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation

July 22, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Posted in Devarim, Isaiah 1, Lamentations | Leave a comment

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how?  Oh, where?  Oh, how can it be?  (Ten of the nineteen occurrences of eykhah in the Hebrew Bible are in rhetorical questions that express despair or desperation.1)

The first appearance of the word eykhah in the  bible is in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.2  Eykhah also appears in the accompanying haftarah reading from first Isaiah, and in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week during the fast of Tisha B’Av.  (In 2020 we read the Torah portion Devarim during the week ending this Saturday, July 25, and observe Tisha B’Av beginning Wednesday evening, July 29.)

Deuteronomy

Moses, by Ivan Mestrovic,1934, bronze

The book of Deuteronomy (also called Devarim in Hebrew) is a long series of speeches that Moses delivers on the bank of the Jordan before he dies and the other Israelites cross over to conquer Canaan.  Some of his speeches outline God’s laws and others relate what Moses remembers happening on the 40-year journey from Egypt.1

Moses’ first recollection begins with God telling the Israelites to leave Mount Horeb (elsewhere called Mount Sinai) and go to Canaan to take possession of the land.  Moses says:

Then I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to carry you by myself!  God, your God, has multiplied you, and here you are today like the stars of the heavens in multitude …  Eykhah can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring men of wisdom and discernment and knowledge from among yourselves to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:9-10, 12-13)

Here the word eykhah begins a cry of desperation expressing Moses’ memory of how overwhelmed he was.

Isaiah

This week’s haftarah reading from first Isaiah4 rails against the immorality of the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.E.  The prophet cries out:

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

     Eykhah she has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice?

     The righteous used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers.  (Isaiah 1:21)

When Isaiah asks “Eykhah (How can it be?) she has become a prostitute, the [once] faithful city?”, it is a prophet’s cry of desperation, both exclaiming over how far the city of Jerusalem has fallen and sounding the alarm that its residents must change or else.  Isaiah can imagine a reversal of the immoral behavior of the Israelites, but he is afraid they will not cooperate until God smites the evil-doers.

Lamentations

Eykhah appears four times in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week.5  In fact, Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because that is the first word in the book.  Tisha B’Av, the day next week dedicated to remembering the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations/Eykhah.

By the Rivers of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, ca. 1920

This book is set in a time shortly after the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its first Jewish temple in 587 B.C.E.  It opens with this rhetorical question:

      Eykhah the city sits alone,

     Once teeming with people?

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Here the poet6 utters a cry of despair over how the city of Jerusalem has changed from an important metropolis to a hillside of ruins.  Eykhah, how can it be?

The second chapter also begins with a rhetorical question:

Eykhah God, in his wrath, concealed in a cloud

The daughter of Zion?

Cast down from heaven to earth,

The splendor of Israel?

Did not remember his footstool

On his day of wrath?  (Lamentations 2:1)

This time the word eykhah expresses the poet’s despair over the nature of God, who exalted Jerusalem with splendor and chose the city as God’s footstool or resting place—and then in a fit of anger cast it down and made it disappear.  How could God do such a thing?

*

“Oh how can it be that the city sits alone?” we read in Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av.  “Oh how can God forget God’s footstool on a day of wrath?”  Now all the people of the world might ask: “Oh how can God abandon us to this pandemic, letting the innocent die along with the guilty?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can I grow out of my belief in a god who is a parent, either loving or abusive?  How can I stop blaming God and accept what is beyond my control?  And how can I take responsibility for what is within my reach?”

Oh how can the once faithful city have become a prostitute?” Isaiah asks in this week’s haftarah reading.  Now Americans might ask: “Oh how can our once responsible national government have become devoted to stroking the ego of a megalomaniac?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can we restore a government devoted to saving lives and helping all of its citizens?”

“Oh how can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?” Moses asks in this week’s Torah portion.  Now, in the Covid-19 pandemic, we might ask: “Oh how can I handle by myself taking care of the kids without a single break, without a summer program or a class or a play group?  How can I handle the dangers of going to work, or the dangers of a simple trip to the grocery store?”  The burden can indeed be too much for one person, alone.

What if those of us who are not as overwhelmed ask ourselves: “How can I help my neighbor or my friend and safely lighten their burden?”

  1. Other Hebrew words that can be translated as “how” include eykh (אֵיךְ), which begins a rhetorical question in two of its three appearances in the bible; eikhakha (אֵכָכָה), used rhetorically in all three of its appearances; ey (אֵי), which usually means “where” but is used once as a rhetorical “how”; and mah (מַה), which usually means “what” but is used twice as a rhetorical “how”. But none of these words are used as an “Oh, how could it happen?” beginning a lament.
  2. The word God calls out in Genesis 3:9 when Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden is ayekha (אַיֶּכָּה). Although this word is spelled with the same letters as eykhah, the vowel pointing indicates that the word is actually ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where, with the suffix cha (כָּה) = you. Thus ayekha means “Where are you?”
  3. Moses’ memory is not always accurate, and sometimes the way he tells the story is self-serving. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust? Deuteronomy 1:9-13 is a different version of the delegation of administrative and legal jobs than either the one in Exodus/Shemot 18:13-26 where Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises him to delegate 70 elders, or the one in Numbers/Bemidbar 11:16 and 11:24-25 where God tells him to delegate 70 elders.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims that he asked for help on his own initiative, and that he asked the people to choose their own leaders to assist him with giving orders and judging legal disputes.
  4. See my post Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.
  5. Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.
  6. The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but rabbinic tradition ascribes it to the prophet Jeremiah.
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